High Key, Low Key

To show how similar lighting and posing techniques can produce completely different results, let me show you how I create high or low-key portraits indoors. High key subjects typically consist on lighter tones, use soft lighting, and contain white or pale tones. High-key lighting aims to reduce the lighting ratio in the scene and is soft and free from dark shadows. This is usually accomplished with a large, soft light source that can be even be, for example, window light from a North facing window.

High key portraits often contain small darker areas such as eyes to keep them from being too flat and boring. It’s a good method for photographing blondes, which is what the subject was kinda when I made these portraits. Low-key lighting is a style of lighting that creates a chiaroscuro (strong contrasts between light and dark) effect by accentuating the contours of an object by throwing areas into shadow and usually only requires one light, maybe the sun, that sometimes supplemented by a reflector. For those mathematically inclined, low key lighting has a higher lighting ratio, for example 8:1 in the example shown, than high key lighting, which can approach 1:1. Low key pictures concentrate on the darker tones, conveying an atmosphere of mystery and use higher contrast lighting with most of the subject is in shadow and relatively brightly lit small areas. It’s also a useful technique for photographing brunettes.

H is for High Key. Pose is your basic hands on hips with each hand on a different level. (You can put them on the same level to create what I call the “Wonder Woman pose made famous by Lynda Carter.) Camera was an EOS 1D Mark II N with EF 85mm lens with an exposure of 1/80 second at f/9 and ISO 200.



L is for Low Key. A slight change-up in posing—moving the subjects hands from her side and switch from high key low key (which seems better suited to the corset she’s wearing) by using a black Westcott Scrim Jim as a background. Camera was an EOS 1D Mark II N with EF 85mm lens with an exposure of 1/50 second at f/9 and ISO 200.

Joe is author of the new book “Studio Lighting Anywhere” which is available from book and camera stores as well as Amazon.com.

Author: Joe Farace

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